Feminism didn't lie to women about "having it all"

As Germaine Greer said: "I wanted to liberate women from the vacuum cleaner, not put them on the board of Hoover".

A recent essay in the Atlantic magazine by former US State Department official and Princeton Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter, entitled 'Why women still can't have it all', has got the world talking (again) about what it means to be a true 'twenty first century woman'. The article, which claims feminism sold women an unrealistic expectation that they could juggle having children and a high-powered career, has put more than a few noses out of joint and caused widespread discussion of the issue in the States.

Slaughter suggests that the career ladder shouldn't be seen as a straight upward climb. Instead, women should be prepared to build inevitable career sacrifices into their lives if they choose to have families. Turning down a promotion to spend more time working out the kinks in the life of your wayward teenage son, as Slaughter did, could be just as rewarding as skyrocketing your career and missing every bedtime along the way; the cutthroat capitalist culture of competitively clocking in the hours (a phrase made deceptively delightful by its alliterative qualities) is the reason that the glass ceiling holds strong. Social attitudes need to change to reflect the reality of women in the workplace and as a meaningful caregiver, Slaughter continues - and women must realise that the feminist dreams of their forebears may actually have been little more than well-spun lies.

This article is depressing and uplifting in equal measure. On the one hand, it's encouraging to hear Slaughter speak of her own choices unashamedly:
she made compromises in her career (despite being an incredibly successful member of the US government policy team) in order to enjoy the formative years of her children. She took a sabbatical to go to Shanghai with her husband so that they could grow closer as a family and learn Mandarin. She insists that when she does interviews, her two children are mentioned amongst her academic and business achievements, as further evidence of her hard work and dedication rather than mitigating factors.

On the other hand, however, Slaughter does us a disservice with her use of the word 'feminism'. Her entire argument is based upon the idea that women in practice 'feel' like they want to be with their children more than men - a suggestion that she herself predicts will cause a backlash in the media. The idea that feminists were kidding themselves while ignoring their inevitable biological fate to feel inextricably tied to their children doesn't sit entirely comfortably with us. The 'lies' that they sold - as Slaughter would have it, the idea that 'women can have it all' - were actually based on the fundamental assertion that women and men are equal, and 'having it all' should be as possible for women as it is for men.

Slaughter has a lot of sage advice for ways in which we can progress culturally to make this a reality, but her entire article is heavily underscored with the idea that everything will be harder for women because we are more naturally inclined toward family life. Not only that, but it defines 'having it all' in the narrowest sense possible: a truly flag-waving, apple-pie-eating American definition of a life fulfilled, even while she suggests that we move away from placing the onus on careers as definitive of self-worth.

'Having it all' sounds terribly spoilt, doesn't it? For Slaughter, it means 'having a (high-powered) career and a family life, but when magazines and newspapers talk of women 'having it all', there's often an inbuilt assumption that this 'all' that we are supposed to possess is something that men already have, and that we need to achieve parity with them. A happy world in which we all 'have it all' may sound Utopian, because it is, but it is also a rather modern idea, built around capitalistic notions of self-gratification. Considering the fact that one of the top regrets posited by dying men is that they worked too hard and didn't spend enough time with their families, it's somewhat simplistic to assume that they are the lucky proprietors of this 'all', and that, in the interests of fairness, we must have it too. We're not sure if we even want it - it sounds tiring.

The 'feminism' that Slaughter attacks is a straw woman. Feminism was never really about slotting seamlessly into a male-dominated capitalist system, it was a revolutionary social movement. Germaine Greer once said: "I wanted to liberate women from the vacuum cleaner, not put them on the board of Hoover". Quite. Slaughter writes about feminism as though it were a product that she bought and consumed, which then failed to live up to her expectations. Now she wants to take it back to the she shop because she didn't get to spend enough time with her children. We're not buying it.

Of course, Slaughter acknowledges that her argument is only relevant to women at the very highest echelons of the American power structure. So, not single mothers or low paid wage-slaves, but highly educated and ambitious women with certain expectations. In other words, it doesn't apply to most of us, here or in the States. Slaughter speaks of video-conferencing technology; of schools with hours that reflect office life; of paternity leave as enshrined as its female counterpart so that both partners take parenting seriously and mutually from the outset. But you can't work remotely from a supermarket checkout, and Slaughter's notion that changes to working patterns will 'trickle down' to the proles has a patronising whiff about it. Come! We will lead the poor into the Elysian Fields of equality!

The ruthlessly capitalist system in place in the US has more flaws in it than Slaughter cares to see. Of course, as is often with these things, her argument is entirely coloured by her own experiences. Which is why the debate is highly charged: almost every woman involved will have made her own choices and her own compromises and it's only natural to defend that.

This weekend, we asked a mother of nine children about 'having it all', and she said: "If they'd offered it to me on a plate I would have been too knackered to take it". Having children is exhausting, and the unfair division of domestic labour, aka 'the final feminist frontier', is barely touched upon in Slaughter's article. Perhaps what we need is some kind of conference that combines legislative reform with napping, because at the moment, the only women involved in the debate are the ones who aren't covered in baby sick. Because unlike Slaughter's argument, feminism is for everyone.
 

Feminism is about liberation and equality, not just career success. Photograph: Getty Images

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Despite his “strong female leads”, Joss Whedon's feminism was never about real women

Many men in TV and film praised for their powerful women are still writing with the male gaze.

Kai Cole, the ex-wife of Joss Whedon, has written an essay alleging that the director isn’t quite the feminist he appears to be. Colour me unsurprised. There’s only so much good-guy posturing a feminist can take before she starts to become a little suspicious.

It’s not that I’ve any particular beef with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, nor that I think men shouldn’t speak out against sexism wherever possible. But I’ve long harboured a mistrust of male directors – Whedon, Woody Allen, Pedro Almodóvar – who gain a reputation of being “good at doing women”. Who are they, these magic woman-whisperers, who see through woman’s childlike, primitive exterior and coax out the inner complexity? How do they manage to present women, these blank, mysterious objects, as actual human beings?

True, these men are working against a backdrop of extreme sexism, in which film dialogue is dominated by males, while females become increasingly silent as they age. Perhaps one should be grateful to anyone who allows a female character to have some glimmer of an inner life, let alone exist beyond the age of 30.

All the same, I can’t help feeling this isn’t enough. We all know the joke about the male feminist who walks into a bar because it’s set so low. It’s all too easy to be “good at doing women” when all it takes is granting female characters the same desires and contradictions we’d grant to any other human being.

Women are not a specific type of puzzle for mankind to solve. The idea that it should take some noble, generous leap of imagination to empathise with us is an excuse men have been using to mistreat us for millennia. When responding to us as though we’re actual human beings – or at least, as though an interesting Real Woman subset of us are – becomes a USP, we should all be worried.

Whedon did go a little way to addressing this in his 2006 acceptance speech for an Equality Now award, in which he mocked the way in which he was constantly asked: “Why do you always write these strong women characters?”:

“Why aren't you asking a hundred other guys why they don't write strong women characters? I believe that what I'm doing should not be remarked upon, let alone honoured.”

If this sounds a little like a humblebrag, it can probably be excused. What’s harder to excuse is this idea that a man who boasts of surrounding himself with women like his mother – “an extraordinary, inspirational, tough, cool, sexy, funny woman” – is doing womankind a favour.

I’m glad you appreciate your mum, Joss, and that you apparently don’t feel threatened by other women like her. There’s a fine line, though, between valuing women and presenting them with a whole new list of impossible standards to live up to. This is why I could never quite buy into the liberatory potential of Buffy. There’s nothing impressive about a man failing to be intimidated by his own strong girl fantasy.

In E T A Hoffmann’s 1816 short story The Sandman, the hero Nathanael falls in love with Olimpia, a doll whom he believes to be a real woman. Once the truth is exposed, the men around him become concerned that they, too, may have unwittingly fallen for automata:

“Many lovers, to be quite convinced that they were not enamoured of wooden dolls, would request their mistresses to sing and dance a little out of time, to embroider and knit, and play with their lapdogs, while listening to reading, etc., and, above all, not merely to listen, but also sometimes to talk, in such a manner as presupposed actual thought and feeling.”

There’s something about the director who’s “good at doing women” that reminds me of this. There’s a recipe for dropping in just the right number of quirks, inconsistencies and imperfections to create a Real Woman Character, without making her so unsexy as to be instantly distinguishable from your Hollywood doll. It’s not that her actual thoughts and feelings matter; it’s all about where she’s positioned in relation to you.

As Sophia McDougall noted in her excellent essay on Strong Female Characters, male characters have complex personalities as a matter of course; female characters, meanwhile, are occasionally permitted to be strong, hence anomalous. The more nuance we see, the better. Even so, I’m tired of the veneration of men who fetishise Real Womanhood just as much as others fetishise the plastic variety.

According to Whedon’s ex-wife, the director’s declared feminist ideals never filtered through into real life. Whether this is true or not, this would be understandable. Real Women are not the same as real women. Equality isn’t a matter of men feeling “engaged and even attracted” to a more diverse range of females. It isn’t about the male gaze at all.

Whedon’s final response to the “why do you always write these strong women characters?” question – “because you’re still asking me that question” – has been seen by many as an explicitly feminist statement. But perhaps all it really meant was “because there’s still a gap in the market”. Because men will always find ways to benefit from other men’s sexism. If Real Women didn’t exist, some man out there would have to invent them. 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.